The Two Faces of Charismatic Leadership

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Charisma and I have a troubled relationship. I find myself drawn to it and have often enjoyed that special sparkle that a charismatic leader possesses. However, I have also been hurt by charisma when that sparkle takes on a dark hue. As a result, I have tried to understand how I can distinguish between the different shades of charisma. In other words, how can I discern whether a charismatic person is going to help me or hurt me?

My defining ‘charisma moment’ occurred when I discovered a study conducted 25 years ago (by House and Howell). In their study they discovered that charismatic leaders naturally fall into one of two categories. See if their results align with your personal experience.

  • ME Charisma: Also called, personalized charisma, leaders with ME charisma respond to challenges by prioritizing their own needs. Their tendency to place their own needs ahead of their organizations indirectly means that they believe their company exists to help them. Research shows that these individuals will engage in actions which are adverse to their company, be exploitative, self-aggrandizing (braggers), authoritarian, narcissistic, and non-egalitarian (do not view others as equal). As a result, followers of leaders who utilize ME charisma often encounter detrimental consequences.
  • WE Charisma: Also called socialized charisma, leaders with WE charisma are very different because they focus their efforts on organizational needs. They are egalitarian (view others as equal), and seek to create a vision that reflects the organization. They empower, give away authority, are follower-focused and typically refocus their personal sparkle on the organization or other people (instead of themselves). As a result, followers of leaders with WE charisma often encounter positive experiences.

If you are like me, you cannot help but read these descriptions and have names come to mind. We have worked for people with ME charisma. We have also worked for leaders with WE charisma. And I strongly suspect that, if I gave you a choice, you would all choose to work for the same charismatic style. The problem is that both of these methods can get results. However, if you value people in your organization, only one of these results matters!

Therefore, charisma is neither good nor bad. Rather, why charisma is used is the heart of the matter. Some will choose to use if for self-serving purposes while others will use it for the benefit of those around them. In fact, I really don’t have a troubled relationship with charisma at all. I only have a troubled relationship with ME charisma. And I think that I should!


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Jeff Suderman is a futurist, consultant, and professor who works in the field of organizational development. He partners with clients to improve culture, leadership, teamwork, organizational alignment, strategy and organizational future-readiness. He resides in Palm Desert, California. Twitter: @jlsuderman Email:

Source: Stephen Fogarty, The Dark Side of Charismatic Leadership

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